Graft, lockdown and police violence stir anger in Cyprus

People hold a banner during a protest in Nicosia, Cyprus, 20 February 2021. People demonstarted against government corruption and coronavirus COVID-19 restrictions. [Katia Christodoulou/EPA/EFE]

Thousands of Cypriot protesters have staged large demonstrations in past weeks, angered by months of lockdown, economic woes and a string of corruption scandals, as well as a rare police crackdown.

“There is a general frustration and I find the climate has been quite explosive,” said human rights lawyer Achilleas Demetriades.

“A lot of people have lost trust in the state.”

He was speaking after authorities deployed baton-wielding riot police and a water cannon in the capital Nicosia earlier this month to break up a largely peaceful anti-government rally.

As the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the holiday island’s economy, a lack of government support has left many “choosing between buying bread and paying bills,” said musician Anastasia Demetriadou.

The 25-year-old became an inadvertent symbol of the protests after being hit in the face by a water cannon at a demonstration on 13 February, leaving her facing emergency surgery to save her left eye.

Cypriots protest against corruption, virus restrictions

Cypriot police on Saturday (13 February) used water cannon and tear gas to break up a rare protest in the capital, as hundreds demonstrated against government corruption and coronavirus restrictions.

The heavy-handed police action compounded widespread anger over what many see as a bungled and authoritarian response to the pandemic, with the Mediterranean island now in its second prolonged lockdown since March last year.

There has also been outcry over a so-called “golden passport” scheme, under which Cyprus issued thousands of passports to investors in exchange for an investment of €2.5 million.

Cyprus to launch anti-graft reforms after passport scandal

Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades said Thursday (28 January) his government would announce major anti-graft reforms after it scrapped its controversial passport-for-investment scheme last year.

Popular discontent at the scheme, frowned upon by the European Union, reached boiling point after the speaker of parliament was filmed allegedly agreeing to help facilitate a passport for a fictitious businessman who supposedly had a criminal record.

The scheme has since been scrapped and speaker Demetris Syllouris resigned in October.

But the Phileleftheros daily reported he would receive a golden handshake of €100,000 and a monthly pension of €5,000 — plus generous stipends for a secretary and a car.

To cap it all, the powerful Orthodox church earlier in February controversially demolished four listed buildings without legal permission, amid works for a new cathedral in Nicosia’s historic old city.

For Cypriots struggling to make ends meet, all these scandals have become symptomatic of state graft and impunity.

‘Lack of trust’

“There’s so much corruption in Cyprus,” musician Demetriadou told AFP, adding she had been shocked by the passports scandal.

“People just don’t go to vote because they don’t trust the government anymore.”

At a first protest on February 13 a few hundred people defied the pandemic ban on gatherings to protest in a Nicosia park.

Despite the presence of children and people in wheelchairs, the police — dressed in full riot gear — put on a show of force, deploying a water cannon.

As Demetriadou danced in the street, police fired a water cannon, first at her feet and then at her head.

“I never in my life imagined that they would hit my face,” she told AFP. “I thought I had lost my eye.”

As she waits to find out whether she will fully recover her sight, Demetriadou is planning to sue the police.

Cypriot authorities have launched an independent probe.

Neither the police nor the justice ministry would comment to AFP, citing the ongoing investigation.

But lawyer Demetriades said he had not seen such tactics in over three decades of practising in Cyprus.

“The police use disproportionate and unwarranted force,” he said. “This is not something we’re used to.”

Last weekend, Cypriots held the biggest demonstration Nicosia has seen in years, with AFP estimating some 5,000 people marched peacefully through the capital.

While dozens of police lined the route, they stood well back. No riot police or water cannon were visible.

Demonstrators almost all wore masks and organisers with megaphones urged them to maintain social distancing.

So far over 33,500 cases of Covid-19 have been registered on the southern Greek Cypriot part of the island, with some 230 deaths. A mass testing programme is in place, but vaccinations have been slow to take off amid a shortage of supplies to EU nations.

Teacher Maria, 54, whose son was arrested at the previous protest, said she was “very upset, very angry, at the lack of transparency of this government.”

“I am really angry that they get away with anything and everything,” she said. “We are supposed to be a European country, this is absolutely unacceptable.”

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